Op-Ed: Profiles In Cowardice From Harrisburg

Rotunda at the Pennsylvania Capitol / photo © iStock

One of the most common criticisms of the State Legislature is “they can’t get anything done” in Harrisburg; in many ways, those critics are more correct than they probably realize. If you want to reduce the biggest obstacle hurting Pennsylvania down to just one word, that word would be “process”. Sit back and pay attention to a rare glimpse into the real inner workings of our state government, and try not to throw up your breakfast along the way.

Our system of legislative government hasn’t changed much in over 200 years. A legislator introduces a bill, the leadership of the majority party brings certain bills up for debate, individual legislators introduce amendments to those bills that are voted on, and then the amended bill is voted on by the entire legislature. This legislative process isn’t anything new; it’s basically the same one Benjamin Franklin used as Speaker of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Assembly all the way back in 1764.

Except that isn’t the way it works anymore. Maybe on paper, but not in reality.

After the “wave election” of 2010, the Republican party held a commanding 112-91 majority in the State House of Representatives- ten more votes than the 102 required by the Constitution to pass any law. With those kinds of numbers, they could pass just about any law they wanted during the 2011-12 legislative session, and judging by the measures they passed (Voter ID and Act 13 dealing with local accountability on Marcellus Shale come to mind), they certainly did. But one incredibly important part of the legislative process has all but disappeared- the ability of legislators to try and amend bills.

In theory, there shouldn’t be any way the majority party should be able to stop any member from offering a valid amendment on a bill, but it has happened with historic regularity this session? Why? It’s all politics. Many amendments are legitimately good ideas (coming from both Republicans and Democrats) and would be nearly impossible to vote against from a political standpoint, but we’re in an era where unyielding ideology stomps all over bipartisan cooperation (with a very few exceptions largely in the name of window dressing).

So instead of simply voting on amendments in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution, the majority party has resorted to using procedural tricks to prevent amendments that may contradict their political ideology or give a specific legislator they may not particularly like a chance to showcase a good idea. Instead of voting on an amendment, a member of the majority party will make a motion that the amendment in question is “unconstitutional” or “not germane” to the bill; these procedural votes then pass almost always along party lines and the amendment dies without a vote.

As a result, many amendments never get the vote they are legally entitled to, and perhaps more importantly, members of the majority party avoid ‘tough votes’ which may be hard to explain to the public or the press. Labeling these maneuvers as ‘just procedural votes’ somehow not only makes them totally acceptable, but also serves as the best political shield imaginable, because so far the public and the press seem totally fine with this clear abuse of power and public trust. It’s almost too good of a scam to be true.

This habitual abuse of process for purely political purposes is just wrong, and it stifles any shred of democracy under the Capitol Dome. Legislators are sent to Harrisburg to confront issues, not hide from the ones we don’t like. But the problem is whenever we talk about these insider maneuvers to the public or the press, either no one usually cares or the standard “well, both parties do it” line emerges.

I don’t deny that parliamentary gamesmanship is an inherent part of the legislative process, and the majority party will win most of those battles, but this is something altogether different. We operated with a Republican Speaker during my first term in 2007-08, and it was nothing like this, so you cannot just chalk this up to blind partisanship. What has happened in Harrisburg since the Wave of 2010 is historic in a very disturbing way, considering that majority was won largely on cries of undying loyalty to the Constitution. Let me give you a specific example.

Last week, I offered an amendment to HB 2626, a tax credit bill designed to help employers. The amendment was an idea I had been working on for over two years- a PA Jobs Tax Credit for Marcellus Shale Workers that would provide a $2,500 credit per employee for Marcellus Shale companies who hire 75% of their workforce from Pennsylvania. Not only was the tax credit good policy for Pennsylvania workers and businesses, it was also incredibly relevant to the underlying bill. But because the leadership didn’t want the amendment to pass but didn’t want their members to have to make an unpopular vote to defeat it, a Republican member made a motion that the amendment was not ‘germane’ to the bill, which is just absolutely ridiculous. The ‘process vote’ was along party lines, and the Republicans killed my proposal without exposing themselves to a politically unpopular vote.

That vote marked the 28th germaneness motion this session, which shatters the previous record of thirteen, which happened in the 1977-78 session and also the 1995-96 session. In the last 10 years, the germaneness motion has only been used 25 times in 5 sessions. The only other time we had more than 10 was in the 1999-2000 session, which means we have only had four sessions with 10 or more germaneness motions in the history of entire PA House of Representatives. So I don’t want to hear this “both sides do it” nonsense; this Republican leadership has more than doubled the procedural abuse, and more importantly, they’re doing it because they don’t want to put up any votes that may give them heartburn politically, which is a cowardly approach to governing.

But it isn’t just tax credits and other small issues being smothered by this process; there are much bigger issues simmering beneath the surface. Last week, when a Democratic legislator tried to bring up HR 520, which asks the US Attorney’s Office to investigate the handling of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal by then Attorney General Tom Corbett, the House was promptly adjourned and the next day’s session was cancelled by the Republican majority to avoid debating or voting on the issue. Afterwards, a constituent sent me an email from a Republican legislator saying he would have voted for the Corbett investigation, but it never came up for a vote. What he failed to mention in the email is the reason it never came up is because the majority utilized a procedural maneuver to prevent the vote from ever taking place. Pretty convenient, huh?

Governing isn’t about picking and choosing the only the easy shots; it’s about taking a principled stand on tough issues every now and again. If you’re a Democrat you should be angry. If you are an Independent you should be angry. If you are a Republican who truly respects the Constitution, you should be furious at your own party. The public ought to be foaming at the mouth over these kinds of shenanigans, and the press should be looking past the glib talking points and really asking the tough questions on these abuses of power. If there are no consequences for this shameful perversion of the public trust, what makes anyone think it will ever change?

 

One comment

  1. In reference to your proposal to amend HB2626, could you tell us who made the motion that the amendment was not germane? Also, and I am not doubting you, but could you explain why, if they did actually vote on it, they would vote against it? Even if it passed, it wasn’t a requirement that the Marcellus Shale companies hire 75% of their workers from Pennsylvania, but only an incentive, correct? If they are concerned about an unpopular vote, then why not approve it and at least make it appear that they are concerned about PA workers. It’s not like we don’t already know that the majority of the workers are from out of state.

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